The 8th March marks International Women's Day, and I've been thinking about the different ways that women support each other during difficult times. I think back to how I drew strength from the women around me when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
According to new research published in The Telegraph at the end 2016, "Lonely women who have survived breast cancer are 60% more likely to die from a recurrence of the disease than those more socially active."
A study of nearly 10,000 patients also found that socially isolated women had a 40% greater chance of the condition returning. As breast cancer remains the most common form of cancer in the UK, these scary statistics shouldn't be ignored.
When I was diagnosed, I was amazed at how varied my friends' reactions were. Some would burst into tears, some would fling their arms around me in sorrow; some felt too awkward to even respond and others were just indifferent, as if it were nothing to be concerned about.
Yet, when I think back, I wonder how I would have managed without my family and friends surrounding me, and carrying me through my darkest days. There is often an assumption that when you get 'that' diagnosis, you want to be left alone. The fear of the unknown and the thought of ultimately dying could make someone withdrawn and non-communicative so, yes, there might well be some truth in that statement. On the other hand, they might need someone to lean on or to cry to but unless you, the friend is asking, how would you ever know?
Here are some things you can do to help a friend in this situation.
1. Just Talk. It's true, you might find it awkward, and however hard you try, you're unable to find the right words. It's difficult and it is like facing someone who's lost a loved one when you just can't face talking to them or even seeing them. However, if that person is a true friend, you will know what to say. A cancer diagnosis has been known to sift out the real friends from the fakes and it's not unusual for friendships to just dwindle away because of lack of communication. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is inexplicably terrifying, so please consider that your friend is scared and feeling isolated.
2. Send a card, flowers, or a gift. I remember my living room being filled with cards and flowers from friends, sending me best wishes and letting me know that they had my back. They were thinking of me - and that's what mattered. At a time when you've never felt more alone, even small gestures of acknowledgement, encouragement and support are welcome.
3. If your friend is having surgery or treatment, it's a good idea to get to know when is the right time to call or visit. Through talking you'll understand how she is feeling, both mentally and physically. This could very much depend on treatment cycles and how she's affected. My first week post chemotherapy was the worst. My energy levels were zapped, I had nausea, my general being would just be off kilter and I needed to be alone. At times, I felt so bad that I didn't want my kids or husband to see me; mainly because I knew that I looked and felt awful, and secondly because I wanted to protect them from getting upset if they saw me in pain or discomfort
4. Offer to help with your friend's housework or to run errands like shopping or banking. Any help with the cleaning and laundry would most likely be welcome. If she has children, then offer to take them out of the 'sick' environment for a play date. Offering to do the school runs or having the kids for a sleepover could be a Godsend.
Apart from the visible side effects of chemotherapy, there are many other invisible but debilitating ones. Sensitivity to taste and smells is heightened, and nausea coupled with fatigue can make cooking a nightmare, so preparing meals would be another worry scrubbed off the list.
5. Rallying other friends round and doing something normal and fun is a lovely gesture. If you all belong to a circle of friends, you could take it in turns to check up on your chum. Picking her up and taking her out for a cuppa or lunch might just be enough to take her mind off any negative or worrying thoughts. Otherwise, a simple phone conversation about anything other than breast cancer might be a grateful distraction.
6. Offer to accompany your friend to chemotherapy or radiotherapy. A good idea is to organise a rota so that everyone can take it in turns to do the hospital runs. Believe me, there will be plenty of them and some chemotherapy appointments may take a while - so having good company makes the time pass a lot quicker.
7. Be considerate and patient. Apart from the mental turmoil of a breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatments may leave disfiguring scars. Breast cancer often calls for a lumpectomy or mastectomy, and for a woman especially, these procedures can render her with very low self-esteem and anxiety or even depression. Scars are a constant reminder of her lost femininity, and acceptance of these and learning how to move on is another part of the process. This can take time and she may be struggling with this. It may not always be appropriate, but arranging a relaxation day or a pampering treatment may give her a boost and lift her spirits.
8. The effects of a diagnosis can also be devastating for a spouse, children, and other family members, so it's always worth thinking about how they can be helped. At some point, they may need support and this is quite often overlooked, especially if they're suffering in silence. Always inquire how they are coping and offer assistance.
9. There will be a sense of relief for everyone once your friend has finished her treatment, but unfortunately this is the time when she will probably need friends the most. It's very common to feel vulnerable as the army of health professionals which surrounded her with protection and reassurance is suddenly no more. From a personal point of view, I couldn't understand why I felt so down. No one had forewarned me that I might feel this way, but I eventually sought counselling. This helped me tremendously as I then realised that I could burden a stranger with my fears and insecurities rather than family or close friends. So, look out for any signs of anxiety or depression and suggest a phone call to an organisation like Macmillan.
10. We often hear the terms 'in remission' or 'NED' (no evidence of disease) but for the person who's had the cancer, the worry of it recurring is very real and persistent and it's therefore common to suffer with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The emotional struggle can come on suddenly and unexpectedly so be aware of the roller coaster of emotions which could be the start of something more serious. Even today, almost nine years after my first diagnosis and nearly three after my second, I still have those unexplained instances of panic and despair. On one hand, I tell myself everything is fine and I'm in no immediate danger and yet, the deep-seated thoughts of the cancer coming back continue to haunt me. Again, you can seek help on your friend's behalf, so offering to take them to the doctor or making a call to a counsellor might be a small gesture on your part - but a lifesaver for your friend.
So, on this International Women's Day, please spare a thought for the women around you and think about ways in which you can support them. They might need you more than you realise.
Breast Cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK. Every year around 11,500 women die from the disease - that's nearly 1,000 deaths each month.
Breast Cancer Now powers research that's finding new ways to prevent, detect and treat breast cancer, and believe that if we all act now, by 2050, everybody who develops the disease will live.
For more information visit www.breastcancernow.org
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today
Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org